The first thing you need to do is a get a template for your cover from Lightning Source. Log in and go to “Account at a glance” (top right-hand corner). Then, under “Tools”, choose “Cover template generator”.

Enter the book’s ISBN, don’t bother with the publisher reference number, choose a B&W interior and cream paper, then choose the first option from the drop-down menu – the 5 x 8” size. Enter your page count and email address.

I chose to have my price in pounds in the barcode, just because all the paperback novels I’ve seen have that. In a way, it’s better not to include the price – then you can change it without changing the cover, and you can use the same file if you ever want to put the book on sale in the US (without its needing to be shipped over from the UK). But I set a very simple standard: to look as much as possible like a conventionally published book. And that’s what I stuck to.

Once you’ve made your choice, an InDesign template will be sent to you by email within in a few minutes.


When you open InDesign, it will probably still be in the “Typography” workspace. Change it to “Advanced” instead, so that you have the right buttons in the menus. One of these useful new buttons is “Layers”. A layer is basically a collection of marks on the paper that you can choose to:

  • Hide or view – by clicking on the eye icon to the left of the layer’s name
  • Lock so that it can’t be changed – by clicking on the padlock icon

There are already two layers. The first of these is called “Guides”, and it consists two sets of dotted lines, showing you where its safe to put your text, logos and graphics. The second is called “Layer 1” and contains a lot of extra construction lines, plus marks showing where the sheet will be cut. The guides layer is locked, and you should keep it that way. Layer 1 isn’t locked, but the only thing you should move on it is the barcode, which can go anywhere on the lower part of the back cover. To make sure you don’t accidentally change anything else on Layer 1, it’s best to create another layer by clicking on the little icon that looks like a Post-It note. Call the new layer “My Cover” or something. The colour next to the name of each layer relates to the colour of the box that surrounds every object. Only what’s inside the coloured boxes will print. The colour is just there to help.

The layer with the pen icon beside it is the one you are currently editing. Just work on the “My cover” layer until you’re ready to move the barcode. Then click on “Layer 1”, move the barcode into place and click back onto “My cover”. It might sound like I’m making heavy weather of this, but layers took me ages to work out when I first started using InDesign, and all the instructions seem to assume that you know what they are and what they’re for. They’re collections of text and images, and they’re to prevent you from accidentally moving stuff that you don’t want to change. There.

Everything looks terrible

One thing that will immediately strike you is that the cover looks like a total mess, and you haven’t even started yet. No matter how good your design, it will continue to look a mess in InDesign. This is because:

  1. InDesign displays low-resolution versions of your pictures on-screen to keep things fast.
  2. The screen is full of guides, boxes and construction lines that won’t appear on the finished product.

If you want a better idea of how your cover will look, click the “Screen mode” icon (a rectangle with bits at the corners) just below where it says “Layout” at the top of the screen. Then choose “Preview”. The graphics will still be low-res, but the construction lines will all disappear. For an even better idea, save the file as a PDF by going to File > Adobe PDF presets > [PDF/X-1a:2001].

If you open the PDF in Acrobat X, you can crop the image (keeping in the marks that show the cover’s borders) and print it out at 100% size. If you don’t have Acrobat X, the Mac’s Preview app doesn’t seem to be able to print it at the right size. But if you paste it into Word, you can tell it to make the dimensions correct. I found the best way of getting a feel for how the final product would look was to print it out, use a craft knife and a ruler to cut the page down to the right size, and then fold the paper in the right places (putting black lines on your cover to show where to fold is a good idea – you can delete them when you’ve finished). Occasionally I’d wrap it around a book of the same size, to get a better idea.

Adding text and graphics

The easiest look to aim for is clean, and matte white covers look good. Have a look for something you can use as a model. I reckon the easiest way to avoid it looking too home-made is to:

  • Use only one font
  • Keep everything important at least 0.75” from the edge of the page – the cutting is never absolutely precise, and you don’t want it to look as though things are about to fall off
  • Make the title fairly large at the top of the page
  • Put your name much smaller beneath the title
  • Have a very high-resolution, clean and clear image in a place that balances the title and your name – if in doubt, align everything to the centre of the page
  • Make sure there’s plenty of blank space
  • Don’t make the writing on the back too big – have it about as large as the writing inside – and keep it away from the edges of the page

Two things that caused me an unnecessary amount of stress and wasted time:

  • You insert a picture from a file by going to File > Place. It’s a stupid name for the command, which should obviously be called “Insert”.
  • To resize a picture without messing up its proportions, hold shift and cmd while clicking and dragging one of resize handles (the little square boxes at the corners of the frame).

When you’ve finished, export it as a PDF/X-1a:2001, with the title “9780956965608_cov.pdf” – only using your ISBN, not mine.

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